When I was teaching for Marist College in the New York State prison system in the early 1980s, it was Black History Month, and I asked my black students what they knew about Paul Robeson. They had never heard of him.
I was shocked – maybe appalled is a better word – and proceeded to give them a random list of Robeson’s accomplishments: brilliant student who graduated from Rutgers as an All-American football star; Rhodes Scholar; opera singer; actor (did they ever hear “Old Man River” from the musical Showboat?); Civil Rights activist; target of McCarthyism and the Klan; ruined by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); blacklisted and then exiled in Europe and the Soviet Union; and finally back “home” and a sad end as a bitter and broken man – broken by racist America.
It’s a tale to be told, and not just haphazardly by some know-it-all white teacher in the prison system, but thankfully – as in Phillip Hayes Dean’s play Paul Robeson, written in 1977 and first performed in 1979 by James Earl Jones – with a sense of history, of struggle, justice to be achieved and finally, some form of redemption: an appreciation for what this remarkable human being had accomplished.
For Floyd Patterson II – himself a product of a father (the late former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson of New Paltz) who weathered that era as best he could – casting himself as Robeson in this one-man play “was the most challenging and thrilling experience of my life. Paul Robeson’s story was so intriguing in many ways,” says Patterson. “He was such a gifted man who gave the world so much. The problem was, the world wasn’t ready for him.”
Directed by Danny Eaton of the Majestic Theater in West Springfield, Massachusetts (Patterson II’s hometown), the play covers Robeson’s years at Rutgers, his courtship and marriage, his rise to fame as a singer and actor, his starring roles as Othello and The Emperor Jones, his trips to Civil War Spain and the Soviet Union, the political harassment of 1940s and ‘50s America, his stirringly angry encounter with HUAC and ending with his birthday party in 1975.
“This play was a gift to me of an individual who led an extraordinary life, and I’m hoping to have people celebrate this man and to let others know more about him,” says Patterson. “It’s a journey that was made by an artist, an artist who believed that one had to fight for freedom or stay a slave… ‘I have made my choice,’ he said, ‘I had no alternative.’”
The play Paul Robeson, celebrating Black History Month, is being presented by the Unison Arts and Learning Center in partnership with the College of Fine and Performing Arts and the Black Studies Department at SUNY-New Paltz this Saturday, February 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the McKenna Theatre on the SUNY-New Paltz campus. Tickets purchased in advance are $20 general admission, $15 for Unison members, and $22/$17 if purchased at the door. Tickets may be purchased online at www.unisonarts.org or by calling (845) 255-1559.
Paul Robeson, Saturday, February 16, 7:30 p.m., $20/$15 advance, $22/$17 at door, McKenna Theatre, SUNY-New Paltz, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz; (845) 255-1559, www.unisonarts.org.